Jazz: The Loneliest Monk

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Now that Monk is being heard regularly, he seems more alone than ever. Jazz has unhappily splintered into hostile camps, musically and racially. Lyrical and polished players are accused of "playing white," which means to pursue beauty before truth. The spirit and sound of each variety of jazz is carefully analyzed, isolated and pronounced a "bag." Players in the soul bag, the African bag and the freedom bag are all after various hard, aggressive and free sounds, and there are also those engaged in "action blowing," a kind of shrieking imitation of action painting.

Within each bag, imitation of the "daddy" spreads through the ranks like summer fires. Trumpeters try to play like Miles Davis. And hold their horns like Miles. And dress like Miles. Bassists imitate Charlie Mingus or Scott La Faro; drummers, Max Roach or Elvin Jones. Sax players copy Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane, who is presently so much the vogue that the sound of his whole quartet is being echoed by half the jazz groups in the country.

Bud Powell, Red Garland, Bill Evans and Horace Silver all have had stronger influences than Monk's on jazz pianists. Monk's sound is so obviously his own that to imitate it would be as risky and embarrassing as affecting a Chinese accent when ordering chop suey. Besides, Monk is off in a bag all his own, and in the sleek, dry art that jazz threatens to become, that is the best thing about him.

A Curse in Four Beats. In the gossipy world of jazz, Monk is also less discussed than many others. Occasionally he will say some splendid thing and the story will make the rounds, but there are personalities more actively bizarre than Monk's around. Rollins is a Rosicrucian who contemplates the East River, letting his telephone ring in his ear for hours while he studies birds from his window. Mingus is so obsessed with goblins from the white world that person to person he is as perverse as a roulette wheel; his analyst wrote the notes for his last record jacket. Coltrane is a health addict—doing pushups, scrubbing his teeth, grinding up cabbages.

And Miles Davis. Miles broods in his beautiful town house, teaching his son to box so that he won't fear white men, raging at every corner of a world that has made him wealthy, a world that is now, in Guinea and the Congo as well as in Alabama and New York, filled with proud little boys who call themselves Miles Davis. He is a man who needs to shout, but his anger is trapped in a hoarse whisper caused by an injury to his vocal cords. The frustration shows.

Onstage, he storms inwardly, glaring at his audience, wincing at his trumpet, stabbing and tugging at his ear. Often his solos degenerate into a curse blown again and again through his horn in four soft beats. But Miles can break hearts.

Without attempting the strident showmanship of most trumpeters, he still creates a mood of terror suppressed— a lurking and highly exciting impression that he may some day blow his brains out playing. No one, Dizzy Gillespie included, does it so well.

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